Obituary: Handel Evans

AS A young man Handel Evans faced the choice of two careers, music and art. His considerable gifts as a pianist and as a painter would almost certainly have guaranteed him success at either but, perhaps rather curiously for a Welshman, it was on the visual arts that he chose to focus.

Evans produced a large body of fine paintings, drawings and etchings. Though his reputation has still to be established in Britain, where he rarely worked and exhibited, he made a much bigger name overseas, especially in Germany, where his work entered significant collections. A memorial show will be held at Korbach Museum from 26 March to 13 June.

Evans had long hoped for a significant exhibition of his work in Wales, and one somewhere in Britain is overdue for this most self-critical of artists. Solo shows at two London venues, Brown's Hotel in 1972, at the small Mario Flecha Gallery in 1982, and one at Clare Hall, Cambridge, in 1987, made modest impact, although his fine early drawing Dandies, Head of a Welshman was acquired for the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Handel Cromwell Evans - Cromwell was a family name - was born in Pontypridd, Glamorgan, in 1932. He studied painting at Cardiff College of Art from 1949 to 1954, where he was taught by David Tinker and Eric Malthouse. His "mentor" was Clifford H. Lewis, at whose School of Music he also studied, eventually becoming licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music. Lewis urged Handel's parents to sell everything if necessary to fund his study of the Alexander Technique, to improve his posture.

Evans inherited his artistic abilities from his parents. His father Joseph came from a family of singers, had a fine baritone voice and was a licentiate of the London College of Music. His son was born on Easter Sunday, a few days before Joseph was to conduct a choir of 2,000 voices in the oratorio Messiah, by George Frederick Handel, hence the boy's name. A daughter would have been called Melba. Initially taught music by his father, Handel Evans passed his first musical examination aged four years and 10 months, so small that the examiner had to lift him on to the piano stool.

Joseph Evans had failed, in mysterious circumstances, to win a scholarship for his singing in 1934, prompting a nervous breakdown and a resolve "never to sing another note in my life". Instead he became an elec- trician with the British Overseas Air- ways Corporation, which enabled Handel to travel extensively at a concessionary rate.

After studying with Lewis, Evans concentrated on art and spent two years in the Caribbean (1959-61), where he taught for a while. Otherwise, he lived by his painting. A one-man exhibition at the Institute of Jamaica, in Kingston, took place in 1962.

After a period in Germany and Italy, Evans attended the prestigious British School at Rome in 1962-63. His mother, Marian, a designer and fitter for West End couture houses, made all Handel's clothes. For Rome, she remembers him asking for a new overcoat, in the style of one worn by Sherlock Holmes, "needed in two days. I made it, and he wore it for years".

After further painting in the West Indies, London, Italy, the United States and Canada, and exhibitions in Jamaica (1964) and Barbados (Lyford Cay Gallery, Nassau, 1968), Evans spent 1975-76 studying etching with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17, in Paris. About this time he first met Eugene Garfield, founder of the Institute of Scientific Information in Philadelphia, who was to commission one of his most important works. Another exhibition followed at the Schubert Gallery, Marbella, in 1977.

Evans's style had been transformed over the years. His catalogue Paintings and Drawings of Three Decades, covering the period 1959-89, shows how his pictures moved from figuration towards abstraction with a figurative element. The early work done in Wales ranges across fine portraits in carbon to melancholy ink and gouache studies of interiors with a strong Neo-Romantic tinge. Figurative pictures completed in the West Indies are more robust and richly coloured.

The mid-1960s period in Grenada also included a large, highly complex drawing, Caribbean Village. In 1991 Evans was commissioned to do a version of it in casein tempera, which he regarded then as a stylistic anachronism, but which, he told me, was eventually resold for about pounds 50,000.

By this time Evans was well established in Germany, where he lived much of the time (he spoke excellent German) and where he had a string of exhibitions, beginning at the Kleine Galerie, Cuxhaven, in 1984. From the mid-1970s, the theme of man and technology had become important to him, and he pursued it at length, for example in his series The Employees and in Interpenetrations, the ambitious oil on canvas he completed for the Institute of Scientific Information in 1978-80, on which he worked in both the United States and England.

In the many variations on The Employees, tightly organised, asexual, faceless figures are painted in infinitely subtle colour gradations. Later in his career Evans was further developing this theme with a series of whirling, rotating pictures and works related to musical notation. Handel Evans wrote that for him "there is no greater affinity between man and nature than between man and machinery, which, after all, is man's own offspring . . . I see them as mutually dependent, and meeting each others' needs."

David Buckman

Handel Cromwell Evans, artist: born Pontypridd, Glamorgan 3 April 1932: died Thanet, Kent 5 January 1999.